TOKYO -- North Korea should complete its denuclearization by 2020, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told Nikkei on Friday -- the first time a representative from Japan, the U.S. or South Korea has cited a specific deadline.
The aim is to prevent Pyongyang from using upcoming talks to buy time to continue developing nuclear weapons. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in next Friday, and is expected to hold talks with U.S. President Donald Trump by early June.
Kono cited political factors behind the 2020 time frame -- namely the possibility of leadership changes among the three allies. Trump faces a presidential election in November 2020, and Moon's single five-year term will end in 2022.
"We want to get this done during the Trump, Moon and [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe administrations," the foreign minister said.
Japan, the U.S. and other countries began to ratchet down sanctions on the North in 1994 after an agreement was reached to freeze its nuclear program, but that arrangement broke down a decade later. During the tenure of Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, Pyongyang's nuclear program continued apace as the U.S. maintained a policy of "strategic patience," essentially taking military options off the table.
The Trump administration's willingness to consider military action is seen providing a valuable opportunity to push North Korea toward denuclearization. If this goal cannot be achieved by the time Trump leaves office, the North as a nuclear state will become a settled fact. And concerns remain that Pyongyang's recent conciliatory stance is a tactic to buy time and avoid a U.S. attack.
"North Korea has no transfers of power," Kono warned. "The more time it gets, the more it can do."
Japan, the U.S. and South Korea seek complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization by Pyongyang. Kono declined to provide details about the process, saying that would be "putting our negotiating cards on the table," but he asserted that "North Korea won't be rewarded without at least taking clear and irreversible steps."
Kono stressed the importance of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. "The IAEA is already prepared" to go as soon as inspections are mandated, he said.
The chief diplomat acknowledged that dealing with the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s -- a priority for Tokyo -- will ultimately require direct bilateral talks with Pyongyang, being "a matter of diplomatic normalization."
Kono indicated that Japan will seek the cooperation of the U.S. and South Korea to set up a dialogue, and touched on the North's three American detainees and kidnapped South Koreans. "We have to raise the issue of violations of human rights with the international community," he said.
The minister added that offers of economic support could be a potent bargaining chip. Aid from Japan would be "very appealing" to Pyongyang, he said.
Tokyo will consider the matter resolved only with "the return of all victims, a full accounting of the matter and punishment of those responsible," Kono declared.